It’s closing time when Dermot leaves the pub. The last round of drinks with his mates he’s downed a couple of goldies, the whiskies flowing through and warming the heart. Pushing through swing doors, he’s sorry the night is ended so soon. He’s not dressed for the cold weather outside Macintoshes, open neck shirt and blue jacket that has acquired a worn glaze and matching pinstripe trousers that end in a squiggle at the kneecaps, but his black shoes are shiny and he’s a respectable hop, skip and jump from home and a warm bed. The wind loses its cutting edge inside the close and his eyes take time to readjust not only to a different kind of darkness, but what he sees. His son on the bottom landing, shaking and crying and that alone is enough to raise the blood. A dog, with a hood over its head, hanging from a metal bar of the upstairs veranda like a carcase in the abattoir waiting to be gutted and skinned. And the boy from downstairs—whom he never liked much, sometimes he finds it’s difficult to tell youngsters apart with their long hair and coats and some of them even look like women—tormenting the wee girl next door, who is screaming hysterically, and whose name he could never remember, but seemed to be always under his feet. Old Budgie McGee on the first floor landing pops his head out the door, like a mechanical cuckoo, then back in again. There’s another character floating about Dermot likes even less than the boy that lives downstairs. Shuffling feet coming towards him with a square-nosed shovel and attitude, but it wasn’t dot to dot to work out his intention, fly men are always the same. A knot formed in Dermot’s face and his jaw clenches. He turns his head slightly to check no one is sneaking up on him.
‘Hi smartalec, whit dae yeh think you’re looking at?’ the boy with the plukey face says.
Dermot hits him with swift jab, knuckles his eye. The boy staggers back and Dermot follows through mashing his nose and hits him four times, a staccato of blows to the chin and cheeks, in succession before he goes down, trying to get a handle on pinstripe.
‘Watch out Da!’ his son shouts.
Dermot drops his shoulder and an axe blade swings past his face. He punches Jaz in the gut. Winded the boy steps back and that’s all the opening Dermot needs. A flurry of blows to face and lips has him drowning as he falls against the pockmarked wall. The axe drops, clanging. Dermot holds him up with his coat lapel, hitting with a ferocity he rarely used, his feet, head, knee smacking against soft flesh, cartilage and bone. No Marquis of Queensberry rules when a man is so obviously beaten, Jaz’s head smashing against the tenement wall, for every blow given counting as two. But to Dermot it didn’t seem enough, he plans to make him suffer more.
The plukey-faced boy struggles to his feet and comes lurching towards Dermot, but then seeing the state of his pal’s face changes his mind and hightails it out the back-court entrance and the safety of the night. Dermot lets Jaz fall and kicks him as he goes down.
‘Da,’ his son shouts, ‘you’ll kill him.’
Dermot nods in recognitions and his son flings himself across, clinging to his legs and greeting. He pats his shoulder. ‘C’mon son, we’ll get you up the stairs and into your bed.’
The wee girl stands, hypnotised, staring up at the dog. Her face is snotty and she is strawberry-cheeked from crying. ‘Maybe we could give the dog the kiss of life, like you gave to me,’ she says, turning and imploring his son.
‘No hen, that’s no’ the way it works,’ Dermot gently says. He goes across and gathers her up in her arms, ignoring the stink of shite— he’s smelled worse at work. She weighs no more than a handful of coal. He carries her easily up the stairs, his son ahead of them, and his head turning on every landing to check they are following him.
‘Whit about Blodger?’ Angela asks. Her head is tucked into Dermot’s shoulder.
Dermot isn’t sure what she’s talking about. A sharp pain in his knuckles has kicked in now the adrenalin has dissipated. Blood pours from the knuckles in his right hand, messy and sticky, and growing so sore he almost has to put the wee girl down. He remembers when the one with the spade got up and came towards him, he’d been caught out, Jaz had moved his head when he went to punch him again, and he’d punched the brick wall. ‘Who’s Blodger?’ he asks.
‘Blodger’s her dog,’ his son, chimes in.
‘Oh, aye, don’t you worry pet, I’ll make sure he gets a good burial.’ Dermot shoogles Angela about as he searches pockets for house keys. Finding them, he holds them out so his son can open the door.
He carries Angela over to her house and slaps the letterbox with his good hand, and waits and slaps it again and again. ‘Where’s your mum?’ he asks Angela.
‘Dunno,’ she sucks on her thumb.
Dermot give it another go, chapping the door. Finally, glancing backwards, he follows his son inside the hall and warmth of home. He puts Angela down on his chair; the fire has still a glow in it and he picks up the poker, with his left hand and stirs the embers. The knuckles on his right hand are a violin of pain, hitting bum notes and he rushes through to the kitchen, running it under the cold tap. He feels the presence of his son, lurking at his shoulder. And he snaps at him, ‘Make yourself useful. Put some coal on the fire.’ Cold running water gives little relief. He feels queasy looking at his hand.
‘But Da, whit are we gonnae dae with Angela? She stinks,’ he whispers, pegging his nose with his fingers.
His son has Maggie’s features and he’s thrown, in a way those bully boy never could, by the grief of her. She would know what to do, he thinks. ‘We’ll clean her up and give her a bed.’ Her voice in his head. That becomes his plan, diving beneath the sink for a basin and running the geyser at the side of the sink for boiling hot water, regardless of the ticking meter and the cost.
Back in the living room, armed with a facecloth, a block of green sunlight soap and sloshing hot water, he stands next to the chair. The wee girl is sleeping. His son is in the chair opposite, silently, watching him.
‘Goin’ and get ready for bed,’ Dermot says. ‘And bring another pair of your pyjamas, for the wee lassie.’
‘They’ll be far too big.’
‘That doesnae matter.’
His hand is giving him major gyp, but he ignores it, lifting the wee girl and peeling her clothes off. She slumps half-drunk with sleep, helping him by moving her arms and legs like a marionette, letting her dress be tugged over her head because Dermot couldn’t manage the buttons. Her pants are unwashed and dirty and he nips the elastic and peels them off. His son comes back cradling a set of pyjamas, gawping. Dermot winces sponge-bathing her, inexpertly, with his left hand. He knows it’s not the secret of her vagina his son is looking at, but the starburst-purples and blues and yellows of bruising at the top of hers leg and her stomach. The scratches on her chest. She doesn’t cry out as he moves the damp cloth over them, just looks on, as if she’s there and not there, with petted lip and cornflower blue eyes as big as an overflowing bucket.
His son’s chests heaves and he starts bawling and greeting. ‘Who did that?’ He points to the marks, looking away into the fire.
Dermot feels his eyes growing moist. ‘Dunno.’ He’s got his suspicions, but doesn’t want to say more than that. ‘We’ll need to let the cruelty man decide.’ He dips the cloth into the water and rinses it out. Rubs it against her feet and in between her toes.
‘It’s cold,’ Angela says.
‘Whit’s the cruelty man?’ asks his son.
‘That’s when a man comes to see who has been hitting children. And he comes to help them.’ He tries to make it sound pleasant. ‘Sometime taking them away and getting them somewhere better to stay, with a new mum and dad.’
‘But you hit me.’
Dermot drops the cloth into discoloured water. ‘Aye, son, but…you’re right…I swear on your mother’s grave, I’ll never hit you again.’